Susan Rosenberg is many things: Jewish, lesbian, political activist, released convict, and writer of the memoir An American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country. Born in 1955 in Manhattan, Rosenberg became an activist in high school. She describes the groups for Black liberation, feminism, and the fight for Puerto Rican independence. Rosenberg isn’t lightly involved; she was indicted for being part of the group that helped Assata Shakur (see my review of Assata: An Autobiography) escape from prison and involvement in the famous 1981 Brink’s truck robbery that left two dead (it’s quite dramatic if you want to read about it).
Wanted by the FBI, Rosenberg went underground for a few years before coming up to help another activist transport a twenty-foot U-haul trailer filled with dynamite, guns, and fake IDs. They were caught. At her trial, she and her co-defendant were “. . . each convicted of eight counts of conspiracy to possess and transport explosives, guns, and false identification across state lines. We were each sentenced to fifty-eight years in federal prison for possession of weapons and explosives. It was the longest sentence ever give for a possession offense.”
If you’re like me, you’re glad someone transporting such dangerous items was being sent to prison. However, at the time Rosenberg felt she was rising against a tyrannical government, informed by the political thought of the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. She writes, “I felt that we lived in a country that loved violence and that we had to meet it on its own terms.” Interestingly, her lawyers noted that a “possession offense” typically garnered a five-year prison sentence, thus Rosenberg and her legal team fought for her release so adamantly.
And therein lies the crux of An American Radical: the United States government treating a Rosenberg like a political prisoner rather than a citizen convicted of a crime. Her lawyer wrote, “My client’s 1985 sentence of fifty-eight years for a possessory offense was sixteen times longer than the average sentence for such offenses. Had she been sentenced under the new guidelines she could have received months rather than a lifetime.” As Rosenberg aged, she no longer agreed with her younger self’s feelings about how to engage in activism, so she wonders how to live out a prison sentence that’s meant to punish her for something she no longer believes. Good question.
It’s not just that Rosenberg was in prison, though. Her memoir educates readers, walking them through her experience in an experimental prison — she was one of the first inmates ever housed there — in Kentucky. The facility had sixteen cells in a basement away from natural light that had bright fluorescent lights on 24/7 in cells, inmates could not have any possessions, and they were watched and strip searched (for what, you might ask) regularly. The facility was shut down for human rights abuses in 1988.
Rosenberg was moved to Danbury, made famous by Piper Kerman and Orange is the New Black (see my review). While Kerman made Danbury sound like a way-not-cool girls college dorm, Rosenberg noted the high number of inmates dying of HIV/AIDs, and cancer due to poor health care. To keep her sense of humanity she became a counselor, handing out information on how HIV/AIDs is transmitted. She began writing fiction and poetry, including these lines:
I have met Death in the cold of this prison. She arrives in a multitude of forms
The death of women around her from a virus isn’t the only marker of the time period in American Radical. During the Gulf War in 1991, Rosenberg notes many corrections officers have ties to the military and treat prisoners like the enemy because many were minorities (Hispanic, Black, Jewish, lesbian) that caused “problems” for America. Shakedowns during which personal items like toothbrushes and books were thrown out, and racial slurs yelled at inmates, became more common as tensions rose, until one day a correctional officer:
. . . got on the PA system and yelled, “Listen up, convicts, we have the constitutional right to take you out to the recreation yard and shoot you all in a time of war. This has been a federal directive since the Civil War, since you will likely aid the enemy to obtain your freedom. We have the president’s order to take you out first.”
Each marker of history, from war to illegal activism to who is president, informs readers of how our culture and climate shape what happens to us. As I read American Radical, all I could think of was the political and health disaster that was 2020, up to January 6th. Rosenberg acknowledges, “I had believed that if voting did not work, I had to build illegal alternatives to prepare for the day when enough people recognized the change.” And if the people from January 6th felt similarly to Rosenberg, did they not follow the same call to action that she did forty years before?
Susan Rosenberg’s memoir can be a tough read because she leaves no room to soften her experiences. A cavity search that tears her body to punish her reads akin to rape. Poor health care in the facility leads to her missing and rotting teeth. Attempts to build relationships — friendship, love — read awkwardly because they are molded by restrictions and watchful eyes. While Rosenberg convincingly writes that she was tortured, I failed to feel too much sympathy about her conviction from her crimes. An entire U-haul of assault weapons and dynamite aren’t harmless, whether Rosenberg was convinced no one would get hurt or not. And so American Radical is not yet another “I was treated so badly!” prison memoir, but instead a deep dive into how prisoners are handled out of the public eye regardless of American law. If you’re interested in political activism and the U.S. prison system, Rosenberg supplies the goods.